The partridge in Exmoor’s pristine landscapes can prove highly elusive, writes Alec Marsh
The Challacombe Shoot, part of Loyton Sporting’s empire, is set in the bracing landscape of Exmoor. Rock protrudes from the earth and the trees are coated in lush mosses or crouch on bracken-covered hillsides, cowed by elements.
After an evening of Epicurean pleasure at the Loyton Lodge – where the chef served exquisitely roasted grouse – we arrive at the first drive, Shortlands, and my guest Hugh Dickinson takes the peg. With the trees a good distance off, we have good sighting and wait. ‘The anticipation is glorious,’ declares Hugh as his gaze roves across the sky.
A shot down the line announces the arrival of the partridge. Then our first covey surges overhead. Hugh is on the leader – bang, it’s down – but he misses the second and the rest sprint off. I reload as more partridge cruise by – Hugh catches another and it plumps down behind us. Suddenly there’s a glut of birds: Hugh picks one but is too late, and he’s behind the second. ‘They’re like sparrows,’ he gasps. He fires – a bird folds to the ground. Hugh makes it look easy as covey follows covey. ‘The barrels are actually hot,’ he exclaims.
On the second drive, my peg feels closer to the treeline, which is also higher, giving a shorter window to shoot in. Soon the guns are blasting away – and the sky yonder is filled with birds. It’s almost Hitchcock.
Suddenly a pair comes loose from the trees ahead: I’m behind the first but my right barrel claims the next. There’s a lull, then a covey charges over: I miss twice; and then I’m too late for the tail-enders after reloading. Over the next 20 minutes waves of birds zip by in singles or trios. I bag a couple more. Just the ticket.
After elevenses of sloe gin, meatballs and game broth, we head higher on to the moor for the third drive. The birds, driven from the rocky hillside of gorse and bracken, rush left and right. Those that do come our way race over low on the wind. Then suddenly there’s a swarm – Hugh hesitates, and misses, then they go back to zooming over low and fast. Eventually, with the last of the coveys, Hugh takes a hard-earned couple. ‘That was a magnificent drive,’ he declares.
Next we form up above a reservoir by a high bank for Challacombe’s signature drive: Pixie’s Rock. The grassy slope veers up at 45 degrees for several hundred metres, and there’s an awful lot of sky. We wait, a buzzard flaps overhead. Down the line there’s a pop or two, then I see a dot in the sky. It gradually gets bigger and grows wings – this is a high partridge, all right. Finally I shoot. And then shoot again. The bird sails by.
I fire, and again – and nothing happens. I start to wonder if reading glasses might help. A biblical deluge of partridge go over – untroubled by my smoking barrels. Mercifully, despair is thwarted after half an hour: I finally hit one, and then another.
‘To get partridge of that quality so early in the season is rather unfair,’ remarked fellow gun Nigel Hadden-Paton. Over lunch of astonishing quality, hosted by Loyton’s Angus Barnes, it’s clear that this set of experienced guns have had a day to cherish. ‘A very senior day,’ remarked Hugh. Bang on.